Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Odd Couple: “2012” and “Diary of the Dead”

By Lars Trodson 

Both Roland Emmerich and George A. Romero want to tell us a bedtime story, and that story is that the world is ending. Only Emmerich doesn’t really believe it, and Romero seems to believe in it all too much. 

As coincidence would have it, I rented “2012” and “Diary of the Dead” (from 2007) and watched them back to back. The movies had incongruous conclusions. Emmerich quite literally destroys the world -- entire coasts go toppling into the water, mountain ranges become engulfed in water, huge tracts of land open up so wide these new gaping maws make the Grand Canyon look like a flesh wound. Only at the end of “2012” the sun rises and there is good will among the survivors. The dead are dead in both flesh and memory and it is time to move on with a smile on your face. 

In Romero’s modest but entertaining “Diary of the Dead” the world seems threatened by nothing more than a gaggle of impossibly slow moving imbeciles, and yet you really get the feeling -- as Romero clearly intended -- that the end has in fact arrived.  

In the Emmerich world the threat is cataclysmic yet conquerable. In Romero's world the threat is on a much smaller scale but increasingly more difficult to overcome.  Romero has infused his movie with an incredible sense of defeatism. His main characters, college students who are out in the woods making an independent film -- are less than heroic.

They’re confused, selfish, immature and only barely self-reliant. Intended or not, Romero is telling us that the human race has reduced itself down to the ninny-state, and we can’t even get out of the way of a zombie. We're in such bad shape there's little difference between the dead, the undead and the alive. This is bad stuff, indeed. 

In “2012”, the voice of impending doom comes in the form of the reassuringly goofy form of Woody Harrelson. Woody’s pirate radio personality Chuck has tracked the events leading up to his realization that the world is ending, and only a few have been chosen to live through it’s demise. He prophecizes the end and, just like the Tibetan monk living in solitude on the top of a great mountain, greets his own demise not with fear and grief but with resolution and even bliss. Good for them. 

Romero, on the other hand, is having none of that. His radio voice of doom -- repeating the same “end of days” phrase that Harrelson says in “2012” -- is only briefly heard at the end of a single scene, and the voice sounds cacklingly real, as though Romero had recorded some late-night whackjob and spliced in the audio track. There isn’t anything funny or reassuring about it. And any heroics that are found in the picture have a singularly narrow and specific purpose -- to save oneself, not the world, even as you begin to doubt whether anything at all is worth saving -- including yourself. 

Romero has apocalyptic visions all right, but they aren’t Mt. Everest underwater. It’s the teeming masses of bloggers and videographers out there who are creating their own truths about the events around us. As much as he may decry the corporate media, Romero doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the weenies who hide behind a keyboard or a video camera to record an event they have little interest in getting involved in, either. It isn’t so much that heroism is out of date, Romero is saying, it may be that we just don’t know how to do it any more. What’s troubling here is that this is just as precious as Emmerich’s view of a new dawn created out of the sensibilities of an eHarmony commercial.  

Emmerich believes that to be a hero you have to save the world. Romero has the aging hipster notion that heroism is for suckers. 

We’re all going to get it in the end because we deserve it, don’t you know.